Oklahoma protections for abused children still a long way from the pinnacle

little boyIn October, findings were submitted by the outside experts monitoring the Pinnacle Plan, Oklahoma’s court-mandated effort to fix its child welfare system. Their report raises serious concerns about the plan’s implementation in its first year.  In particular, the report makes clear that Oklahoma is still not investing enough to provide the legal minimum protections for children who are victims of abuse and neglect.

As we discussed more fully in a recent blog post, the Pinnacle Plan was developed last year by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) out of a settlement agreement reached in a federal class action lawsuit. Oklahoma’s foster care system was found deficient for allowing abuse of children in its care, placing children in overcrowded and understaffed emergency shelters, and failing to provide secure and long-term placements, among other concerns.  The settlement agreement assigned a team of three independent experts, known as the Co-Neutrals, to approve the agency’s plan and monitor its implementation.

In July, DHS issued its first  monthly report measuring progress in meeting the targets for improved performance.  The Co-Neutrals  responded to the report with a commentary that identified major problems with the reform effort so far. The report commended DHS for reorganizing the child welfare system and for integrating two previously distinct systems for investigating reported cases of child abuse and neglect.. However, it found significant problems with the accuracy and integrity of DHS data. DHS appeared to miss performance targets in three of four areas: the number of new foster homes developed, overnight shelter use for children, and abuse of children under DHS care. Only in the area of caseworker visits was there significant progress towards DHS goals.

While the Co-Neutrals identified numerous areas of concern, two problems stand out as most significant. The first involves the number of available foster homes. The report finds that “DHS’ pool of available foster homes is not sufficient to provide home-based placements for the number of children in DHS custody.” While expanding the number of foster homes is a top priority of the Pinnacle Plan, problems and delays with awarding contracts to outsource foster care placement to private companies has delayed this process more than a year. In turn, DHS has not been able to stop the practice of putting young children in emergency shelters.. The number of infants and young children in shelters has increased in recent months, while in other cases, DHS is able to avoid shelter use only by turning to Emergency Foster Care, which for many children, leads to multiple placements in a short period of time.

The second highly significant problem concerns staffing and caseloads. The Co-Neutrals declare that staffing problems are “fast forging a new crisis on the frontlines of the organization.”   They write:

The Department has faced an immense challenge of retaining both new and seasoned caseworkers and stemming exceptionally high staff turnover. Despite the efforts to reduce caseloads with new positions, the high turnover rate creates a constant stream of vacant positions and adds additional pressure on an unstable and new workforce that is trying to manage a CPS [Child Protective Services] backlog of 1833 cases as of mid-October and provide quality care for the increasing number of children in custody.

DHS is looking to add 200 more child welfare workers in FY 2014, but also needs to fill some 150-175 vacant positions. The continued rise in reported and confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect and of children in state custody is increasing the strain on both child welfare staff and the state’s foster care network.

Common to both the foster care and staffing issues is the matter of money. The Pinnacle Plan calls for a series of annual increases in the rate paid to foster care families to boost the number of participating families and of salaries for child welfare workers to recruit and retain qualified personnel. Rate and salary increases were provided in FY 2013, but have been delayed for FY 2014, when the Legislature appropriated $8 million less for child welfare reforms than DHS requested. The Co-Neutrals express grave concern about the funding shortfall and “urge the state to take every available step to seek and identify funding to fully and timely implement the Pinnacle Plan.” At the same time, advocates have expressed concern with DHS’ willingness to provide detailed information about staffing and the budget for child welfare services.

The Co-Neutrals will not make their first formal determination of whether DHS is making a “good faith effort” until the first half of 2014. This initial commentary, however, should ring alarm bells that the Pinnacle Plan is in trouble and that additional resources, along with more time and commitment from the full range of stakeholders, is needed for the plan to succeed. The well-being of our state’s most vulnerable children is simply too important not to pay heed.   

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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